Print in Good FORM


The first issue of Form was published in the summer of 1966. Its credo, written by an unidentified "editorial voice" which falls between geometric architect Philip Steadman, translator and concrete poet Stephen Bann, and art/poetry historian Mike Weaver—in italics, the "aims" emphasized in every issue follow precisely:

The aims of 'Form' are to publish and provoke discussion of the relations of form to structure in the work of art, and of correspondences between the arts."1

From within this sentence, already we can read that the arrangement of "Form" as a periodical work itself (the aims of Form) was directed towards constructing an argument (to provoke discussion) about the relations of form and structure in the work of art. Thus, distinct from the pell-mell variety of unrelated articles in some traditional little magazines, Form stands as a coherent whole, a meta-magazine, an argument through commentary, arrangement, and citation: exploring the relations of form to structure in the periodical work of print. Later, I will argue this organizing can well be considered an instance of what Roland Barthes famously defined as "structuralist activity." Before continuing, however, perhaps I ought to separate preliminarily—in Barthesian fashion—form from structure: formalism 'decomposes' where structuralism 'decomposes to recompose a new object.'2 Or, as Yve-Alain Bois will demonstrate, structuralism is a mode of criticism that "seeks to clarify the intrinsic structure of the work—not only how it is made (in the formalist version of this approach) but also how it means."3 In this chapter I aim to explore the ways in which a close reading of this open argument in and through Form—compellingly presented already in the first issue—provides engaging insight into an intertextual moment of experimental writing and continental philosophy in the watershed year of 1966.

Lifting the cover of Form to peek at the table of contents gives one a sense of the sort of argument Form intends to make. Alongside the directed "aims" of the magazine— relating form and structure—the magazine begins with "Film as Pure Form," a hitherto untranslated manifesto by Theo van Doesburg, which is followed by the first English translation of Roland Barthes' influential essay "The Activity of Structuralism." Immediately after Barthes comes "Experimental Aesthetics," a scientific essay on psychological experiments and the possibilities of codifying the structure of human aesthetic judgments (One might hear, immediately, the faint Cambridge snort of disapproval from Wittgenstein). After which, the contents jump to "Fernand L├ęger and the International Style," an investigation of an international aesthetics of post-WWI fragmentation by Duncan Robinson. Then, delightfully out of sync, falls a technical article on new technologies of computer rendering titled "Computers and Design" by Crispin Gray. All of this is followed by the first in a unique series of little magazine tributes called 'Great Little Magazines.' These segments conclude most issues of Form with full author indexes along with reprints of critical articles from little magazines— ranging from Secession in this first issue to Blues, G, Mecano, Ray, De Stijl SIC, Kulchur, and LEF throughout the run of the journal.4 The section on Secession consists of a complete (the first) full author index, a manifesto "The Mechanics for a Literary 'Secession" by maverick dada-modernist Secession editor Gorham B. Munson, "The Attempt" a poem by William Carlos Williams, a selection from Yvor Winters important "Notes on the Mechanics of the Poetic Image," and finally Hans Arp's schizophrenic dadautobiography "Arp the Trapdrummer." The first issue of Form is concluded by three elegant concrete poems by Brazilian concretismo frontrunner Pedro Xisto.

I am compelled to quickly offer this laborious drive-by list of contents in impressionistic detail to invoke, from the onset, a sort of systematic electricity generated even in a quick reading of Form's particular engineering of a diverse array of articles from a disparate range of origins and sources. Additionally, it is important to locate this diverse group of materials in a single unit of space: above, a single paragraph, a small magazine like a black screen—such that these contents, represented in writing here, can exist simultaneously as a singular object and an expanding exploratory space—both systematic and historical. Now we will listen closely to these articles and their arrangement—with ears tuned to the intertextual repercussions that map these in an echolocation of the pivotal moment in 1966—bearing in mind that the term 'intertextuality' itself coined by the young Julia Kristeva in the same year, and that the codes of this coinage only work in cooperation with a nuanced reading of the particular situation of Form in its historical setting, artistic politic, and creative project.5 Thus the directions of the journal will provide a sort of expanding field into the complex of forces shaping, and finding shape in objects in all directions—problematized, but above all excited by, the contradictions of this array of interpretive echoes. However, to begin with, we can sketch a preliminarily flat chart of this periodical movement from the front cover.

The sparse black-and-white front cover features Theo van Doesburg's "schematic representation of a three-dimensional space, simultaneously agitated in all directions." In italics, an editorial note accompanies the diagram:

From 'Film as Pure Form' by Theo van Doesburg: 'schematic representation of a three-dimensional space, simultaneously agitated in all directions.' At right, movement towards a centre; at left, movement towards periphery. The black field represents the movie screen up till now.'

This editorial gesture presents the initial formation of an argument (along with a mode of argumentation) made through the tactical (an art—techne—of ordering —taktos) arrangements of citation, self-reflexive editorial meta-commentary, and experimental neo-modernist format. Indeed, as Joaquim Moreno notes in the blurb for Form from the recent Clip/Stamp/Fold exhibition of architectural little magazines from the 60s and 70s, "Form was probably the first 'meta-little magazine:' …Together with its theoretical postulates, the format of the magazine was also an experimental terrain, another opportunity to inquire about the relations between form and structure."6 As an 'experimental terrain' the cover presents many interesting points of reference for reading the magazine as a whole. Out from the white 9" by 9" modernist field, an editorial voice (from, by, :) directs the viewer through citation. Resting on top of van Doesburg's schematic rendering, the collection of essays in bold, followed by (seemingly less significant) authors, is printed in the still-new cosmopolitan simplicity of Helvetica.7 Competing with the italic editorial commentary to the right for authority of citation, this heterogeneous list of articles describes (and is in turn represented by) the "simultaneously agitated" space drawn from the schematic below. Indeed, the tidy white square of Form could well replace the black "screen up till now" as a space moving simultaneously "towards a centre" and "towards periphery." Permitted a short symbolic misreading, this movement could also well reflect the magazine's recuperation of peripheral modernist/formalist projects towards "a centre" of contemporaneous thought: namely the mounting structuralist wave—which is then pulled back towards, reinterpreting its formal antecedents. On the level of the sign (the black screen), it might be noted, this is a unit in a system already decentered: simultaneously agitated in all directions—Form is a sheaf of dense knots; pages of writing collected in a semi-glossy square; writing that aims to provoke a discussion of form to structure.

Correspondingly, in these pages, I hope to offer a sheaf of readings "simultaneously agitated in all directions" attempting something of what Marjorie Perloff demands of poetic criticism today: a closer reading that positions questions of theory, form and structure along with the problematic of history, culture and geography.8 Reading a magazine such as Form provides an ideal method for just such an agitated reading—an expanded reading of troubled productivity, a fascinated provocation of a discussion of the relation of the historical/cultural/authorial problematic to a reading of the text. As I hope to demonstrate with my reading Form, writing about magazines provides a dynamic opportunity to explore the tension between inventive post-structuralist dialogic reading and the historical nuance of "differential reading."

As Barthes would have it in his famously polemical 1964 interview "I Don't Believe in Influences": "to my mind, what is transmitted is not 'ideas' but 'languages,' i.e., forms which can be filled in different fashions; that's why the notion of circulation seems to me more appropriate than influence; books are 'currency' rather than 'forces.'"9 To which he would add both "I do not feel the need to arrange the uncertainties or contradictions of the past" and "There are many connections between history and literature, starting with writing itself. We must try—and this may be one of the tasks of criticism—to perceive these multiple connections, not in order to reinforce literature's isolation, but, on the contrary, to understand how it is linked by a chain of constraints to human misfortune, which is always literature's real object."10 "However, I repeat, negative or not, I don't believe in influences."11 Currently, the stamp on the issue of Form I'm now viewing reads: "Columbia University / Libraries / JUL 18 1967 / Periodical Room." This transatlantic circulation of a material vehicle of text, interpreted though a stamp from July of '67 and the dialogic intelligibility of the text in April of '07—not an "authority," simply a circular memory.12

To return to the front cover of this first issue, one notices Form's numbering system appropriately figures the cover as the first page to the journal, the contents falling to the third page. The first in a series, the cover is also an introduction, an overture, and a sort of formal thesis statement for the issue to follow. Indeed, the first cover figures a thesis for the 10 issue arc of the journal: shuffling through the issues, mostly skinny, all around 35 pages in length, we see van Doesburg return in the cover to the ninth issue of Form, his picture accompanying a series of diagrams of 'the fourth dimension in Neoplasticism' under notes on Duchamp, Black Mountain College and the 60s New York magazine Kulchur. However, it is in the final issue of Form (no. 10) that we find the compelling mirror/conclusion to the arc of the argument begun by van Doesburg's formalist schematic of the time-space continuum: issue 10 features an diagram called 'project for cine-car' drawn by Alexandr Rodchenko for the Russian formalist magazine LEF. This cinematic automobile is concretely formed from the words roughly translated "GVK All Russi Rural XOZ"—the cinema traveling to rural outposts in all sectors. The simple car features two wheels, a big "B" and a large screen attached to what seems to be the front of the vehicle. The moveable image is an image that moves. Moves on. This final magazine includes Gerard Genette's "Structuralism & Literary Criticism," an article by Simon Cutts on concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, and important unpublished formalist essays from the 'Left Front for the Arts,' namely Brik, Arvatov, and Mayakovsky. Similar to the first issue's complex citational play with van Doesburg's schematic, this continuing discussion drives on (as the magazine itself literally circulates) while the same issues—form and structure in art and poetry—cycle through a stable singular screen, a square of white space that itself moves in time just as there is the simulacra of movement constructed in the succession images (pages).

But then, we must depart from this expanding theoretical space opening Form to read the diagram back into its functional place in van Doesburg's essay "Film as Pure Form."13 The first essay of the magazine, "Film as Pure Form" is preceded by van Doesburg's Elementarist sketch "From Surface to Space. Six moments of a space-time construction (with 24 variations), formation of a diagonal dimension."14 This is followed by an interesting translator's note by film historian and experimental filmmaker Standish D. Lawder. The note establishes—from the beginning—Form's dedication to the translation/recovery of unduly forgotten avant-garde texts. Lawder writes: ["Film as Pure Form"] has curiously received little attention, despite the fame of its author and the significance of his thesis, both in his day and ours.15 Thereby initiating Form's role as a pedagogical vehicle for both historical revisions (his day) and authority on contemporary art criticism (and ours)—van Doesburg's essay ought to be in translation because his thesis holds important consequences for the work of art in 1966. Further, Lawder cites the editors of Die Form as the authoritative voice, criticizing the lack of a "concrete placing of the problem of film" and a "concrete explanation of its means"—this editorial note thus emphasizes the problematic reception of the article's abstraction in 1929 even while foregrounding its vatic import for 1966.16 Thus, the article is contextualized as a historical artifact in the temporal moment of Die Form's publication, as an important forgotten document for contemporary art in 1966, and most importantly, as an object specifically curated by the editors of Form to initiate a future discourse on form and structure—notably, as the magazine continues, for the then burgeoning kinetic art and concrete poetry movements in Britain. Moments of a space-time construction.

The essay that follows is a manifesto for a future "total" film based on the constructive elements of the filmic medium: the orchestration of geometrically abstract, 'pure,' filmic elements—light, movement, space, time, shadow—constituting the concept of a 'pure film form' (rein gestaltender Film).17 Provoked by the exigency of a medium recently complicated by the introduction of sound (the essay was written in 1929), van Doesburg instead calls on the "completely constructivist, clearly elemental structure of a dynamic light architecture" to open "the space-time film continuum"—the fully immersive filmic space pictured on the cover to Form.18 Returning to the technical schematic represented on the cover, van Doesburg writes a vital description of the reconfigured artistic experience of this newly projected film space:

    From this it follows that the spectator space will become part of the film space. The separation of 'projection surface' is abolished. The spectator will no longer observe the film, like a theatrical presentation, but will participate in it optically and acoustically.19

Thus the ultimate implications of van Doesburg's simultaneously agitated filmic project are utopic: towards the union of art and spectator, the avant-garde dream through van Doesburg's infrathin film. Similar to what Steve McCaffery would later appropriate from mathematics: the Klein worm—"a form which differs from conventional geometric forms in its characteristic absence of both inner and other surfaces" for a poetry "without walls," van Doesburg's essay works the expansion of pure forms into a larger structure that unites spectator and artistic phenomena. 20 This too reads well with Form's interest in the potential of the kinetic arts scene of the sixties, publishing on diverse synesthetes from the Russian kinetic 'Movement' Group in no. 4 to the 'Synthesis' Group from Czechoslovakia in no. 7—the interest in these intermedia happenings of a neo-avant-garde form the recuperation of modernist goals along with historical documents. And while much may be read towards this renewal, more interesting, perhaps, is precisely this focus on an active infrathin structure between media and spectator (or reader) dependent on, in this case by, new horizons (and new fusions) of optical and acoustic sense.

      The new experiments, geometrically orientated, succumb to laws of an almost architectural structure for a multi-dimensional space. Thus, more scientific than artistic, they prepare the way for an orchestration of film to be developed in totally new and unsuspected dimensions.21

Approaching this question of a scientific orchestration of new and unsuspected art, and as an excellent indicator of the immediate American distribution of Form, we may turn to Susan Sontag's August 1966 citation of Form's translation of "Film as Pure Form" in her essay "Film and Theatre" for The Tulane Drama Review—importantly, the argument made by Form continues in Sontag's usage of "Film as Pure Form" as the model for a rendering of intermedia constituted by the relations of form and structure in the work of art. Sontag emphasizes van Doesburg's description of film as "a vehicle of 'optical poetry,' 'dynamic light architecture,'" and the realization of "Bach's dream of finding an optical equivalent for the temporal structure of a musical composition."22 Similarly bridging radical art of the 60s—John Cage, La Monte Young, Fluxus—to the avant-garde experimental synesthesia of figures such as Marinetti and van Doesburg, Susan Sontag complicates her placement of the theatrical/filmic line by emphasizing both the media specificity of formal construction (in poetry, or film, or theatre) and the contemporary exigency of intermedia exploration of structure.23

The interest of Sontag and Form's in questions of theatre and film is symptomatic of a tendency towards exploration of intermedia in the mid-60s: productivity through cross-application of complimentary disciplines. Not unrelated to a general science of signs, from Black Mountain and Fluxus performance to concrete poetry and text art, writings toward intermedia often raise the questions of a comprehensive semiology of the arts. Take, for example, Nam June Paik's important piece included in a Great Bear Pamphlet (Dick Higgin's Fluxus press) titled Manifestos. Paik writes: "Cybernetics, the science of pure relations, or relationship itself has its origin in karma…formulated by Norbert Weiner in 1948 as 'The signal, where the message is sent, plays equally important role as signal, where message is not sent.' / As the Happening is the fusion of various arts, so cybernetics is the exploitation of boundary regions between and across various existing sciences."24

While Paik is writing to refute the originality of McLuhan, his comments well apply themselves to Lacan's interest in cybernetics, as is so well demonstrated by Kittler's work on media discursive analysis. In 1966, it seems, even Neo-Dadaist Fluxus Happenings were compelled to explore regions "across various existing sciences," drawing analogy to a "science of pure relations" consisting of "signals" defined differentially in a play pf presence/absence.

But this, perhaps, is to expand the space a bit too far, van Doesburg's project sought an overall artistic form, a 'pure film form,' to transcend the structure of the relationship between spectator and art object. Fluxus, by contrast, used (or, as they say, uses) methods of comedic empathy, usually by emphasizing, or hyperbolizing, the artistic potential of everyday objects. Form's argument is to place these sorts of disjunctive historical moments together to produce exactly this open discourse—the multiple relations of modernist and avant-garde formalisms to structuralism and contemporaneous neo-avant-garde arts. It is not surprising, then, that Fluxus can meet van Doesburg through a series of historical articles Form published from/about Black Mountain College, the birthing ground for the 'happening,' chance-based procedural operations, and many key figures for Fluxus (Ray Johnson, George Brecht, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, et al.).25